Grammar of Music:

Here we see something that is often left out of the music debate: rules. Just as language has certain rules of grammar and syntax, music too had a developed set of rules. These rules, like the rules of language, cannot be found explicitly in the Bible, but it is certain that without them communication is impossible. In terms of language, it is thus evident that while God may not have given us grammar rules in the Bible, they are certainly an essential ingredient of any language. Since God is the author of language, we may say with some assurance that God is also the author of grammar rules. Without rules, there is no language, only the incoherent mumblings and murmurings of people who can no longer communicate with one another.

We do not fully appreciate that music is a language, a form of communication between people. Music adds a dimension to communication that spoken language is incapable of doing. So do most other art forms, and this is why all peoples have these extra forms of communication. Is it possible to find a society that has no music, dance, painting, or other forms of communication in addition to its language? Man, wherever he has been found, uses various art forms as a means of communication in addition to the spoken language.

In spoken language, however, while the rules exist, there is some flexibility for variances in these rules. The general rules are not done away with; there is a change in the way a particular rule is applied.

There is also another purpose for rules: aesthetics. The body of rules that developed were also designed to help the budding composer write music that was aesthetically pleasing. In music, the recognition of harmony and disharmony is important, for it’s a combination of these sounds that produce the intended result. Thus, when the rules of music said that “a part may not leap a major seventh,” this was done in recognition that this interval is not generally pleasing to the human ear. As we refine and develop our listening skills in music, the importance of intervals is emphasized.

The development of the rules of music, though, should not be seen outside of a Christian cultural context. Primitive and pagan societies are not known for developing a body of literature on either the rules of music or on language grammar. There is something in the ethos of Christian faith and character that motivates people towards a more rigorous scholarship in various areas, as well as the attempt to refine and enhance certain cultural activities. Thus, while we may say that in a specific sense the Bible does not contain rules for music or spoken language, it certainly motivates people towards developing a body of rules in these areas as part of the growth and maturation of a Christian civilization.

The abandonment of rules in the arts has gone hand in hand with the philosophical shift that occurred when the Enlightenment replaced Christian faith. That the non-Christian government schools today are producing illiterates should come as no surprise to us; it is the logical result of several centuries of forsaking Christianity and replacing it with man-centered thinking.

If we can understand this philosophic and cultural shift in attitude towards rules in languages and the arts, then we can begin to comprehend where rock music fits into the scene. However, it would be wrong for us to confine this observation to rock music alone, for almost all forms of contemporary music – from the most outrageous rock styles to the most vulgar in the so-called classical music scene, from the elementary examples of contemporary middle-of-the-road popular music to the current church hymnal – display a remarkable lack of developed grammar rules.

It is not my purpose to focus on rock music alone in this article. Therefore we can consider this point in the light of church or religious music. Picking up from where we left off above in the development of music, we find that by the time of the Protestant Reformation a fairly well-defined set of rules for musical composition. These included not only rules for harmony, but also included regulations for the development of melody (a summary of these is provided by C.H. Kitson, Counterpoint for Beginners, London: Oxford University Press, 1927). The melody, what we popularly call the tune, was governed by a set of rules that were primarily negative. They were a list of what should be avoided, rather than what should be included. Like the Ten Commandments, they were a list of what was prohibited. The things not condemned, however, are the things positively encouraged.

The rules of music are eloquently illustrated in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His music stands out for this very reason: he was a follower of the grammar rules, and within those rules he was able to illustrate the possibility of great artistic achievements when governed by a formidable body of rules. Curiously, they imposed no impediment either upon his output or his artistry; rather, they enhanced his gifts and abilities. Bach was, however, out of step with many of his contemporaries. Already, the rules were being abandoned. Within a century, revolution – political as well as musical and in the arts – was not just in the air: too often it had become a reality that claimed the lives of many across the face of Europe.

In the music of Bach and his predecessors, we can see the musical versions of the philosophical doctrine of the one and the many (in theology, the doctrine of the Trinity, see Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many, Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1971, for a thorough analysis of this problem at the general philosophical level.) This does not mean that there was a necessary self-conscious grappling with this problem in music development. But the issue is one which is basic to man and a part of his nature. He cannot escape it, and its final resolution at the human level is found in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Polyphonic (i.e. many-voiced) music in general, deals with this particular philosophical problem. How is it possible to have several “voices” with their own tune while at the same time combine those individual parts into an integrated coherent composition? This, especially, was the challenge of the fugue, where the voices use the same melody but start at different points in time to the other voices. Thus, the original voice is governed by the rules of harmonic development once the second voice begins, and the complexity increases with additional voices.

It is easy to forget, however, that the music of J.S. Bach was often written for local church, and performed by the local choir and orchestra. Part of Bach’s employment at one time was not only as school teacher; he had the added obligation to provide music each Sunday in the local church. Today, Bach’s music is generally heard in the concert hall, and we too easily forget its origins.

In the later Classical period of music, the complexity of polyphonic music was being abandoned for a more simple approach. Whereas music was once a combination of various voices, each of equal importance, now music began to contain a single melodic line that was to have pre-eminence over all its subordinate harmonic parts. The harmonic parts were there to enrich and support the melody. This does not imply that Bach and his predecessors did not write this kind of music, for clearly they gave us some very fine examples. Whereas earlier music included polyphonic and monophonic music, with the emphasis on artistic achievement being able to produce the most aesthetically pleasing polyphonic compositions, now the emphasis began to become centered on monophonic music. This is a generalization to some extent, but the evidence is there to support it.

By the end of the 18th century, the onslaught against Christianity was marked. The French Revolution had endeavored to introduce a new world order based on the basic tenets of atheism and humanism. The results were evident for all to see. It was left to Beethoven to epitomize the Revolution with his onslaught against the older forms and rules of music. This he undertook with great gusto and a remarkable talent. While it is difficult to point out the pinnacle of Beethoven’s musical declaration of the new society based on humanism, his Ninth Symphony, if not deserving of the first prize, is certainly near the top of the list. The revolution ended with the music of Wagner, and it is no coincidence that his music was a favorite of the failed 20th century experiment in humanism, the attempted new world order of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

The denial of God, however, leads to each man being his own god. The end result is not a system held together by rules and regulations that, although not set in absolute concrete, are at least able to provide a solid basis in which civilization can grow and flourish. Rather, the logical result of humanism is existentialism. Each person is his own god, his own island, where the rules are of his own making. For the existentialist, there are no rules except for those which he is willing to accept. The result, musically and in all other areas of life, is anarchism.

While modern-church based music is not anarchistic in the sense that is based on humanism, it very definitely reflects the shift away from polyphonic music. The modern church hymnal contains music that is generally trivial and elementary, since these seem to be essential ingredients for modern congregations. It consists of a single melodic line, usually with four-part harmony. Most of those harmonic lines, if sung by themselves, illustrate the immature character of contemporary religious music. There are few exceptions.

In this sense, both rock music and modern church music can be seen in a similar light. Both are examples of a shift away from the older, more complex, more “sophisticated” (to borrow Copland’s terminology), and therefore more intellectually rigorous forms of music. It should not surprise us to find that a number of professional musicians in their mature years increasingly turn to the music of J.S. Bach. It is the rigorous disciplinarian in Bach and polyphonic music that appeals to many mature people. No doubt part of this is educational; one becomes increasingly aware of the tremendous discipline that is required to compose aesthetically pleasing music when governed by a formidable body of rules. There is also a corresponding understanding that it is increasingly impossible to produce aesthetically pleasant musical compositions when there are no rules whatsoever.

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